Sunday, August 26, 2007

THE RIGHT THING: YOU TELL ME YOURS

An obituary in The Boston Globe for the renowned architect William J. LeMessurier, who died in June at 81, reminded me how powerful personal stories can be in bringing to life the impact our ethical choices can have. (William J. LeMessurier; designed City Hall - The Boston Globe)

In 1978, a year after work was completed on his design for the Citicorp tower in New York City, an engineering student told LeMessurier that flaws in his design could result in the building's collapse. LeMessurier discovered that the student was correct. He also found that because a steel contractor had chosen an inferior method of bolting joints to the one he had wanted, hurricane winds could possibly blow the building off its footings.

LeMessurier had a choice to make. Clearly, the contractor's decision went against his wishes and was not his responsibility. If he went public and revealed the building's flaws, there was a chance it could wreak havoc on his storied reputation.

But it didn't take him long to decide that, regardless of the tarnish it might bring upon his resume, he had to go public and fix the problem. He saw it as a "social obligation," according to a New Yorker magazine profile published in May 1995. "And the most wonderful part of my story is that when I did it, nothing bad happened." (THE FIFTY-NINE-STORY CRISIS [ABSTRACT] ) Indeed, his decision cast in stone his reputation as a man who put concerns about public safety above that of his own career.

Reading LeMessurier's obituary reminded me of a point I often make in talks about the importance of doing the right thing. I cite the obituary of a well-known journalist who had written for national magazines and newspapers and ended his career as a well-regarded newspaper editor. Yet his obituary cites the time he had been fired for allegedly plagiarizing a story from a competing publication. No matter how much he had accomplished before or after this incident, this momentary lapse of judgment became a significant part of his legacy.

Not everyone faces challenges of such magnitude. But we all have made decisions that would either make us proud or ashamed to be remembered by.

So now it's your turn to tell me your story. What one defining moment in your life paints a picture of who you are? Or, conversely, what moment if given the chance, would you like to do over?

A year ago when I asked readers to send in their stories, I received dozens of compelling, heartfelt stories about the moral quandaries they found themselves up against. That's why I'm again asking you to send me stories detailing your struggles. Provide as much detail as possible, but keep your submission to no more than 300 words. I'll run some of these stories in an upcoming column.

Those whose stories are used in that column will receive a copy of my book, The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business (Smith Kerr, 2006).

Include your name, address and telephone number, and submit your story by Oct. 10 to: rightthing@nytimes.com or "The Right Thing," New York Times Syndicate, 500 Seventh Avenue, 8th floor, New York, N.Y. 10018.

c.2007 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

SOUND OFF: FOUL ON BONDS

San Francisco Giants baseball player, Barry Bonds, hit his 756th career home run on August 7th, breaking Hank Aaron's long-held record. While the crowd cheered his achievement, the question of Bonds' alleged use of steroids to enhance his performance still looms large.

But Bonds has not yet been found guilty of any crime. Do you think it was wrong of Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig not to attend the game where Bonds broke the record? Is it OK for sportswriters who vote retired players into the Hall of Fame to pass judgment on Bonds before allegations about his steroid use are proven? If given the chance, would you vote to keep Bonds out of the Hall of Fame based on the allegations of steroid use surrounding him?

If you would, tell me why. Post your thoughts here by clicking on "comments" or "post a comment" below. Please include your name, hometown, and state, province, or country. Readers' comments may appear in an upcoming column. Or e-mail your comments to me at rightthing@nytimes.com.

[To read reader responses to a similar question I asked about Barry Bonds' grand jury testimony on steroid use three years ago after he'd hit his 703rd home run, check out - What do you think of the Barry Bonds steroid scandal? Make sure to scroll down on the page.]

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business (Smith Kerr, 2006), is an associate professor at Emerson College in Boston, where he teaches writing and ethics. He is also the administrator of The Right Thing, a Web log focused on ethical issues.

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to rightthing@nytimes.com or to "The Right Thing," The New York Times Syndicate, 500 Seventh Avenue, 8th floor, New York, NY 10018. Please remember to tell me who you are, where you're from, as well as where you read the column.

c.2007 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

Sunday, August 19, 2007

THE RIGHT THING: ERASING UNCLEAR MESSAGES IN THE STORE AISLE

When Joan Todd saw that her local office-supply superstore in Orange County, Calif., was having a back-to-school sale, she pounced at the opportunity. When else could she buy pencil sharpeners for five cents each or a package of pencils for ten cents?

Since signs in the store read "limit three per household," Todd asked her husband to purchase the limit for each item and then did the same herself. "Technically," she asked me in a recent e-mail, "since my husband and I are one household, should we follow their rule?" She asks if it makes any difference that they donate all the items to a local tutoring center.

It's a testament to her charitableness that she donates the goods, but what she does with the stuff once she buys it has no bearing on whether flouting the rules of the sale was ethically justified.

It's hardly likely that someone from the office-supply superstore will ask each customer to prove someone else from her household hadn't already purchased a sales item. And come on, we're only talking about inexpensive items here. But rules are rules. As long as they're clearly stated, the right thing to do is to follow them.

Ah, but there's the rub.

When Todd got home, she checked the store's online advertising, which stated that the limit on the items she purchased was "per customer" not "per household." Based on this, Todd and her husband were clearly following the rules. They just didn't know it at the time.

Because it is sending out conflicting messages, the store needs to get clear on the rules of its own sale. When companies send conflicting messages about what's appropriate behavior, at best they can expect confusion. At worst, it can result in customers or employees assuming they are free to interpret the rules any way they want.

If she wanted to play by the rules, the right thing for Todd to have done was to ask a store manager if the sales limit was indeed per household or whether she and her husband could each buy the item. Short of that, she should have checked the online advertisement before making the purchase.

But the office-supply superstore has a larger responsibility to do the right thing. It should make sure that its rules are clear and consistent in all of its stores and advertisements.

Todd tells me that that process might have begun. A couple of weeks after she and her husband purchased the items in spite of the "per household" limit sign, the in-store signs have been changed to read "per customer per day." The trouble is that the print and online ads place limits on the same items at "per customer" without any indication that it would be OK to return the following day to make the same purchase.

It may seem a small thing. But sending a clear message to customers will go a long way toward letting them know that management really cares about their behavior in the store.

c.2007 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

SOUND OFF: GIVING BACK CHARITY FREEBIES

None of my readers felt obligated to donate money if they used the free cards or mailing labels that charitable organizations sent them with requests for donations.

Marion Bruening of Salt Lake City, believes charities want you to use the gifts even if you don't donate. "It still gives the impression that this is a charity of your choice," she writes.

Some readers use the gifts to help other nonprofits. Sallie Pearlman of Orange, Calif., donates greeting cards to the Salvation Army or Goodwill. Alma Williams of Fullerton, Calif., cuts pictures off mailing label sheets and donates them to local school teachers to use as stickers.

But if you get too many "free samples," M. Chambers of Lancaster, Wisc., suggests, e-mail the organization and ask to be removed from its mailing list.

Some readers have found stopping organizations from sending labels and cards impossible. "So now I use the labels rather than throw them away," writes Pat Small of Brea, Calif.

But Deanne Dillenbeck of Cypress, Calif., sent the ones she received back in the prepaid envelope with a note asking to be removed from the charity's mailing list. "Do this once or twice and they get the message," she writes.

Check out other opinions at SOUND OFF: GIVE OR GIVE BACK? or post your own here by clicking on "comments" or "post a comment" below.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business (Smith Kerr, 2006), is an associate professor at Emerson College in Boston, where he teaches writing and ethics. He is also the administrator of The Right Thing, a Web log focused on ethical issues.

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to rightthing@nytimes.com or to "The Right Thing," The New York Times Syndicate, 500 Seventh Avenue, 8th floor, New York, NY 10018. Please remember to tell me who you are, where you're from, as well as where you read the column.

c.2007 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Reporters Sue Hewlett-Packard over Pretexting

Yesterday, Dawn Kawamoto, Stephen Shankland and Tom Krazit, three reporters who allege that Hewlett-Packard violated their privacy in the company's hunt to stave boardroom leaks, filed suit against Hewlett-Packard. Details of the suit are reporter at 3 Reporters Sue HP in Spying Case.

You can read my earlier posts on the H-P pretexting scandal at:

And you can listen to an interview I did earlier this year with NPR's "Here and Now" on the topic at Here and Now : Prosecutors Press Charges in Hewlett-Packard Case

Sunday, August 12, 2007

SOUND OFF: BOTTLED OR TAP?

It turns out that some of the top-selling brands of bottled water come from the same source as tap water, not from some mountainside spring.

Recently Pepsico announced that it would start placing labels reading "Public Water Supply" on its Aquafina-brand water bottles, to let the consumer know the source. But a spokeswoman for Coca-Cola, the company that produces Dasani bottled water, told the Associated Press that the company has no similar plans, and that she didn't think the consumer was confused about the source of its water. (See Aquafina Labels: It's Tap Water.) And it isn't all about the source, of course, since both companies put their water through a purification process before it gets bottled.

We're talking big money here: An Aug. 1 editorial in The New York Times estimated that drinking the recommended eight glasses of water a day would cost you 49 cents a year if you drank from a tap, while the same amount of bottled water might run you $1,400. See In Praise of Tap Water - New York Times.)

Do you think that companies should inform consumers when the source of bottled water might be the same as the tap water in their homes?

Post your thoughts here by clicking on "comments" or "post a comment" below. Please include your name, hometown, and state, province, or country. Readers' comments may appear in an upcoming column. Or e-mail your comments to me at rightthing@nytimes.com.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business (Smith Kerr, 2006), is an associate professor at Emerson College in Boston, where he teaches writing and ethics. He is also the administrator of The Right Thing, a Web log focused on ethical issues.

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to rightthing@nytimes.com or to "The Right Thing," The New York Times Syndicate, 500 Seventh Avenue, 8th floor, New York, NY 10018. Please remember to tell me who you are, where you're from, as well as where you read the column.

c.2007 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

THE RIGHT THING: A NOT-SO-ELEMENTARY DEDUCTION

The U.S. Department of Labor estimates that almost 61.2 million people, or 26.7 percent of the American population, did volunteer work last year. Nearly 12 million Canadians, or 45 percent of that country's population, volunteered in 2004, according to the most recent Statistics Canada survey. (See Volunteering in the United States, 2006 and Canada Survey of Giving.) Clearly North Americans are contributing billions of hours of time to causes which they care about.

When people volunteer, most often, it's a relatively straightforward affair. They get involved with a nonprofit organization and find out its needs. If they can fill any of those needs, they step in. No fuss, no muss.

It's particularly gratifying when someone with professional skills turns up at a nonprofit which needs those skills. If that person is willing to donate his/her time and services, the nonprofit can get the work it needs done without paying market rates for those services.

A reader in Massachusetts who is a graphic designer finds herself in exactly that sort of a relationship with her local public school. She donates design services for programs, handbooks, directories and other materials that the school needs and would otherwise have to pay a pretty penny to get.

"I've been told that I can write off that time," my reader writes, "if I send an invoice for the time but show it as a donation. Then the school would send me an acknowledgment letter for me to use at tax time."

My reader is struggling, however, with the fact that many parents give the school similar amounts of time and effort in other ways, without being able to write it off on their taxes. She wonders if it's ethical to ask about a tax write-off for her volunteer efforts when so many others are working for no financial benefit.

As a practical matter, she needn't worry. While she can deduct the cost of supplies, mileage, postage and other out-of-pocket expenses associated with the donation of her graphic designs, she can't deduct the value of her time or her services. It's nothing personal -- Anthony Burke, a public-affairs specialist with the Internal Revenue Service, assures me that the IRS doesn't allow anyone to make such deductions. What's allowed and not allowed is spelled out in
Publication 526 (2006), Charitable Contributions at http://www.irs.gov/.

But my reader wants ethical counsel, not tax advice. If such a deduction were available, would asking about it taint her good service to the school? Does thinking about a possible monetary upside lessen the magnanimous spirit with which she has given of her talents?

Again, no worries. She's volunteering out of the goodness of her heart, not as a tax shelter -- her curiosity about the possible tax advantages is an afterthought, spurred by someone else's recommendation. It doesn't for a minute diminish the value of the professional work she donates to the school, and the school still gets the benefit of her work, whether or not she comes out with a tax deduction.

The right thing for her to do is to continue volunteering and donating her design services for as long as she and the school find it rewarding.

She'd also be wise to consider keeping track of any out-of-pocket expenses associated with her donated services that may be tax deductible. If she's concerned about whether or not other parents know that such expenses can be deducted, by her or by them, she should bring it up at a parent-group meeting.

To make sure that they get the tax facts correct, she and her fellow volunteers might consider asking a parent who is a tax professional to volunteer to provide accurate advice. With so many millions of volunteers out there, there's bound to be a tax pro who's willing to step up.


c.2007 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

Thursday, August 09, 2007

MAN SERVING TIME IN MAKING AMENDS CASE TO BE RELEASED

William Beebe is scheduled to be released from prison on September 17, after serving six months of an 18- month jail sentence. Beebe was sentenced to serve the 18 months in jail after pleading guilty to one count of aggravated sexual battery against Liz Seccuro, a woman he had attacked 20 years earlier when both were students at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

Beebe, a recovering alcoholic, had written to Seccuro to apologize for the decades-old assault. She contacted the authorities, saying that she had forgiven Beebe but still desired justice.

You can a read news reports about Beebe's impending parole at Early release: Beebe to go free next month and Parole in sex assault case stirs ire.

Earlier posts on the blog about the case appear at SOUND OFF: MAKING AMENDS, MAN SENTENCED IN MAKING AMENDS CASE, and SOUND OFF: MAKING AMENDS II.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Beyond the Book: Engage the World with Your Ideas

For several years, Christopher Kenneally of the Copyright Clearance Center has been hosting a series of conservations around the country called Beyond The Book. The goal of the series has been to "explore issues facing the information content industry and help creative professionals realize the full potential of their works, while encouraging respect for intellectual property and the principles of copyright."

Each of these conversations are now available as podcasts at BeyondTheBookcast. You can also subscribe to the entire series on iTunes.

I participated in a couple of these sessions.

One took place at the National Society of Newspaper Columnists conference in Boston with fellow panelists Myra MacPherson and Noah Lukeman. It was posted in February 2007 (BTB #12).

The other was a conversation with Christopher and fellow panelists Holly Stuart Hughes, Paul Dry, and Kristal Bent Zook in Philadelphia at the U.S. Constitution Center that was posted today (BTB #24).

At the beginning of the podcast from the Philadelphia session posted today, Christopher and I talk at length about the state of ethical behavior in the publishing industry.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

THE RIGHT THING: THE CONTRACT GOES TO THE LOUDEST BIDDER

After the bids for a recent project came in from vendors, my reader's nonprofit organization awarded the job to the lowest bidder. They weren't obligated to go with the lowest bidder, but they had liked the low-bidding vendor's work in the past and figured that to award him the contract was a smart business move.

They began to rethink that decision after another of their regular vendors, whose bid on the project had been roughly twice as much, pitched a fit. He threatened to contact key stakeholders, tell them that the organization's leadership was withholding business from him and urge them to withdraw their support from the organization. After a moment of polite incredulity, she says, the organization's leaders decided "to just give him the business to avoid the ugliness."

They plan to call him on his behavior once the job has been done, but my reader isn't satisfied.

"Giving him the job prevents the fallout he threatens, which is important to the integrity of my organization," she says. "But it also shows him that such tactics work and leaves my organization open to future abuse.

"From an ethical perspective," she writes, "what would have been the best way to respond to him?"

The issue here isn't the organization's response to the bullying vendor, but rather their treatment of the low bidder. Having told him that he had gotten the job, the organization had an obligation to him to follow through on that promise. If the leaders were going to knuckle under to the bully -- as they had before, my reader acknowledges -- the time to do that was while considering the bids, not after the award had been made. Giving in to a bully is not strictly unethical, but breaking one's word unquestionably is.

Not that giving in to the bully was smart, ethics or no ethics. In their book Predictable Surprises: The Disasters You Should Have Seen Coming and How to Prevent Them (Harvard Business School Press, 2004), authors Max Bazerman and Michael Watkins write that a common bias against taking action stems from deluding ourselves into believing that a serious problem is not severe enough to merit action, allowing us to maintain the status quo.

By failing to address the problem of the bully's behavior now, the organization does indeed leave itself open to worse in the future, and not only from him: If he knows that he can get away with it, what's to keep him from telling others that they too can bully the organization for higher prices and more jobs?The right thing for my reader's organization to have done, once the job had been awarded to the low bidder, was to have lived with that decision. They were right to tell the other vendor that he was welcome to bid on future jobs. To go any further was unfair to the low bidder and didn't do their own organization any favors in the long run.

Once the threats came, however, they had a new question to ask themselves: Is this the kind of vendor we really want to do business with?

"Our stakeholders generally trust us and know this vendor's reputation," my reader writes.

If that's the case, I don't see any problem here. The stakeholders would likely have appreciated the integrity it would have taken to wish the bullying vendor farewell. At the very least they'll appreciate it now, when the leaders tell him that he's no longer welcome to bid on future jobs.

SOUND OFF: KNOCK OFF THE KNOCKOFFS

None of my readers admitted that he or she would buy imitation, knockoff goods if traveling in mainland China, even if the vendors there were offering a fake $200 "designer" handbag for $25.

Some readers, such as one who asked to remain anonymous, see the issue as simple: stolen is stolen.

"A stolen design is a crime," the anonymous reader writes. "Someone who buys stolen items is complicit in a crime. No gray areas here."

Others, such as Delbert Alexander of Windsor, Ontario, observed that, one way or another, you pay for everything you buy.

"When the copycat pen leaves an ink stain on your knockoff Hugo Boss suit," Alexander writes, "you'll know you got what you paid for."

Check out other opinions at SOUND OFF: KNOCK IT OFF, or post your own here by clicking on "comments" or "post a comment" below.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business (Smith Kerr, 2006), is an associate professor at Emerson College in Boston, where he teaches writing and ethics. He is also the administrator of The Right Thing, a Web log focused on ethical issues.

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to rightthing@nytimes.com or to "The Right Thing," The New York Times Syndicate, 500 Seventh Avenue, 8th floor, New York, NY 10018. Please remember to tell me who you are, where you're from, as well as where you read the column.

Talking Politics Over Turkey

For those wrestling with how to have a civil discussion over a holiday meal, a discussion with HKS PolicyCast